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The Autumn of Love: Chet Helms Tribal Stomp 10/31/05

It was a day-long (free) musical tribute to the guy who ran the Family Dog concerts in San Francisco in the '60s. Bill Graham was a businessman, but Chet Helms was a believer, and his concerts at the Avalon Ballroom were the best. I got into the city late, no way I could handle 8 hours of spectating, parked my truck a mile away from the park and rode my bike to Speedway Meadows, You could hear the music from blocks away. As I got closer I recognized Summertime Blues, being played by Blue Cheer, probably the first heavy metal group (1966), so named, fueled, and inspired by Augustus Stanley Owsley's LSD-of-the-year of the same name. Sounded pretty much the same.

It was a pretty big crowd, although I doubt it was the 20,000 the SF Chronicle said this morning. A bright beautiful day, I was ready for a knockout event, like the two '67 classics, the Monterey Pop Fesitival, and The Human Be-in. Well, not exactly. First impression: it was a party, and a lot of these people had been here 40 years before. There's something touching about the 60-year-olds who are still shakin' it, even if no longer with the fluidity and grace of youth. The next band up was Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship, with two female singers doing the Grace Slick bits. Pretty bad, I'm afraid, and while I'm at it, here are examples of what I thought was sub-standard '60s music — even though I usually feel like a '60s cheerleader.

I never really liked the Jefferson Airplane. I didn't care for — forgive me, folks — the Greatful Dead. B-o-r-i-n-g, for the most part. And this will get me in even more trouble, I never thought much of Janis Joplin as a singer. In fact I liked Big Brother and The Holding Company better before she came along. As the music went on, and people danced, I was a little bummed by the realization that there's an audience for mediocrity. Wavy Gravy started emceeing, and again pardon the observation, I know his heart's in the right place, but his shtick is stale and annoying. Is there anyone I haven't antagonized by now?

So I started shooting pictures. There were great costumes, lots of happy mellow people just glad to be in the park on a beautiful day, surrounded by like-minded. The music went on, a different group every 20 minutes. Then fiddler David LaFlamme and his wife Lynda and their group It's A Beautiful Day came on and things notched up to a whole different level. A tight great band. Whooo-wee! Maybe this was going to be OK.

Then 90-year-old (!) folksinger Faith Petric with her acoustic guitar charmed everyone. Talk about good vibes. People stopped boogieing, and swayed back and forth, smiling. The remnants of Quicksilver Messenger Service were OK, fronted by Dino Valente's son, in white suit no less. Canned Heat did a rockin' version of Amphetamine Annie ("…amphetamine kills…") Nick Gravenites has still got it, doing Goodnight Irene, very fine. Blues singer Annie Sampson, with a powerhouse voice, did It's All Over Baby Blue. Oh yes. Good music was making the day. Squid B. Viscous, a bunch of guys from the old Steve Miller Band, were great. The tight band Zero played as the sun went down. When asked how many people were native San Franciscans, half the audience raised their hands. When I left, the grass was just about spotless; people had gone around picking up cigarette butts and trash. Money was collected in white 5-gallon plastic buckets. Rock and roll.

Mom is 98, Mt Shasta, Frank Sinatra, The Great Outdoors, Learning to Smile

Mom is Almost 98

Virginia Kahn

First stop as I left on my trip in September was to visit my mother, who will be 98 this February. She lives in an apartment and two women help her out during the day, but she still gets herself into bed at night and up in the morning. It's getting increasingly harder for her to move around but she's fiercely determined. If my brother or I try to help her get out of a chair she'll threaten us with her cane. "Leave me alone!" She knows she's got to keep doing it herself. That afternoon I watched her slowly pull herself to her feet, and she said, "Look, I'm getting stronger." Born Virginia Essie Jones in Salt Lake City in 1908, she's a Christian Scientist and has never been to a doctor. She believes health is all mental and by gosh, who can argue? I was the oldest of 6 kids, had a lot of energy, and got in a lot of trouble. Now she looks back on my pranks and scrapes with amusement.

Close Encounters on Mt. Shasta

I headed north up Hwy 101 and got as far as Mt. Shasta around midnight, found what looked like an empty lot on the outskirts of town, pulled in and slept in the truck. Around 6 AM someone knocked loudly on the window. It was a middle-aged silver-haired man walking his dog and I was on his property and he wasn't pleased. I apologized and said I'd get going right away. OK he said and walked away. I scrambled into my clothes and was about to pull out when he came back. "Would you like a cup of coffee?" he said. Sure, and I followed him to his house and spent half an hour with him, got a house tour, gave him a signed copy of HOME WORK, and was on my way. Nice. I wanted to take a run, so drove part way up the mountain (a magic one, as you know if you've been to Mt. Shasta.) I went down a dirt road to a pretty remote place, parked and ran across country. In the woods I came across a guy camping and we chatted. Turned out he'd built his own house and our book SHELTER had been one of his influences; when I left he said "Thanks for the inspiration." Trip off to good start.

Working With What You've Got

For weeks I hung out with a bunch of self-reliant builders. These guys designed, invented, and constructed a huge amount of stuff out of what was lying around. For example, Lloyd House wanted me to view his slides but had no slide projector. So he hung a blanket from the ceiling so it formed like a voting booth (to block the sunlight). He put a stool and table inside it, with a cardboard box on the table with a light inside it. He cut a slide-sized square in the box, taped a piece of wood at its base, and had me rest each slide on the wood to view through the hole, illuminated by the light. Since I've been back, I've been looking around at what needs doing at my home and in my life, and what there is to do it with. I went running on the beach last night and lugged home an l-shaped weathered piece of driftwood I'm gonna use as a shelf bracket. It's catching.

Music of the Week

Old Blue Eyes: My friend Sherman Welpton turned me on to Fats Domino when I was 19 and it changed my life. (It had been the Mills Brothers up until then.) In the last few years Sherm and I've been swapping CDs and he's turned me on to lots of musicians and records I didn't know of. Today at his house we watched a tape of a Frank Sinatra recording session he's wanted me to see for some time. Frank was in his later years and the big band consisted of Quincy Jones, Lionel Hampton, George Benson, Ray Brown, and others - wow! Instead of laying down the drums and then the horns etc. and later combining them, this was live, one take, and it was classic. Frank was perfect; the band awesome. A commentator pointed out that as with all singers, you lose some of the higher notes as you age, but Frank had gained some lower notes and he knew how to use whatever he had.(Kinda like the carpenters mentioned above building with what's lying around.)
The White Stripes: Brother and sister from Detroit, great music, hard to believe it's only two people. 21st century rock & roll.

The Great Outdoors

It's just starting to rain and I love it. In recent years I've reveled in being outdoors, on the magic mother mountain of my area, Mt. Tamalpais, and on the beaches. Maybe it's got something to do with all the time I have to spend messing around with a computer. Moving around in the woods and beaches is the antidote. Physical activity keeps the body alive in these sedentary times. The hills and ocean refresh the digitally-bombarded brain. More important than ever. Every time I push myself out the door I end up exhilarated and feeling more alive.

Learning to Smile

Maybe 10 years ago, I learned about smiling from a Chi Gung teacher. He taught us how to relax facial muscles - good for the organs, promotes harmonious relations with others. I started noticing how natural smiling is with most women, but it's pretty much never a cultivated item with guys. (When you walk down the street, notice how many women smile at you, and how few men do.) I practiced in front of the mirror, and then on the streets, and it was like a magic key. It's become a more and more powerful tool, especially when I'm on the road. I'm having wonderful relations with people and it's so simple to start a conversation with a smile. (Duh!)

Blog Parameters

I post stuff whenever I can, but not as often as most bloggers. I try to get stuff posted at least twice monthly.

The Autumn of Love

It's now a sunny Sunday morning and I'm about to head into San Francisco with my camera to check out a big celebration in Golden Gate Park, celebrating the life or recently-deceased Chet Helms, head of The Family Dog, which promoted rock & roll concerts in the '60s. I have a feeling this might just be good, and I'll report on it later.

Builders of the Pacific Northwest

I got back a week ago from a 4 week trip to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, shooting photos for a new book on builders. I was originally working on a book on North American builders in general, but when I saw the quality and uniqueness of a bunch of Canadian (and ex-patriate American) builders in and around Vancouver Island, it was obvious there was a book in this relatively small geographical area. I covered 2700 miles in my camper-rigged Toyota Tacoma 4x4 truck (a fabulous vehicle in all ways!)

I went 40 miles in an open boat up the coast from Tofino with Bruce (aka Bruno) Atkey, legendary coastal builder (and surfer). We went in Bruce’s 17’ open aluminum boat with 65hp Johnson 3-cylinder, 2-stroke, manual start outboard along with Bruce’s long-time buddy Wayne Vliet, also a builder and surfer (and musician).

We photographed cabins in the woods, a surfers’ beach shack,

Rancho Bueno

and a post and beam Indian-style long house, all made entirely of local cedar from the woods or beaches. A couple of the buildings were built entirely of split cedar, including 8’ long boards, split studs, rafters, and roof shakes. We saw bears, killer whales, and bald-headed eagles; we went surfing 3 days (hit it at 6-8’ one day!); we took a hot sauna, then jumped in the cold ocean water.

Driftwood chair by Bruce

And that was just the start.

After a week on the west coast, with its dynamic energy (the tourist hordes are less in other-than-summer months), I headed over the mountainous middle of Vancouver Island to its east side and to three islands in the Straits of Georgia, the island-filled waterway between Vancouver Island and the west coast of B. C. (more mellow territory), and had a great few weeks there.

Gate of the crow, Hornby Island, B.C.

I came home with about 1700 photos and a mountain of interviews and addresses and things to do and it’s taking me a week to just unravel it all, download and print thumbnail photos, send promised books off, order various stuff I learned about in my travels, and deal with a considerable backlog of publishing business details. Man, if I could just get through the biz stuff faster and have more time for working on books, which is why I got into publishing in the first place. Ooops, am I whining again? I have to admit to myself on occasion that maybe handling all the business crap is why I get to be an independent publisher in this increasingly run-by-committee, conglomeratized, corporate world. (I know a LOT of creative people who’d love nothing better than to create their creations and have them sell like crazy, but it just don’t work that way any more. Marketing, baby!) Onward.

Statement of Blog

I’ll post fragments and photos from the trip over the next few weeks. There are big intervals between my blogging -- up to 3 weeks, so if you’re interested in what I run across in the world, check in every month or so. I really don’t know how people find the time to do daily blogs. I ain’t giving up running or surfing to blog! But at the same time I like the immediacy and world-wide-ness and non-cost-ness of it. So I’ll keep at it on this kind of schedule. I’ll keep putting up photos during the rest of October. (The photos in this posting are all from my (Olympus Stylus 800) pocket camera, and before I got into shooting the houses.) Right now I’m overwhelmed with all the material I’ve gathered, graphic and otherwise. (If anyone figures out how to painlessly clone human beings, let me know, because I could use two more of me to get stuff done and keep on exploring the world.)

Oysters on the Beach

For two nights I camped on the beach on a need-not-be-named island. In the morning I went for a run at low tide and there were oysters all over the place on the sandstone reef! (This was outside the commercial beds.) I cracked some open with rocks and had sea-infused breakfast, a la sea otter. That night I barbecued oysters over a wood fire, had potatoes and onions baked in foil, fresh-picked blackberries with cream and brown sugar for desert, and slept under a canopy looking out at the water and stars. I love this part of the world. If I’d come up here in the 70s I’d likely have stayed. People up here are a lot closer to the values of 60s-70s homesteading than are folks in Marin county, Calif., which I dearly love, but is increasingly outrageously expensive, over-regulated, and impossible for people wanting the build their own house and grow some of their own food — simple goals lots of us had in the ‘60s-’70s.

Water and Wood

In July when I got into Port Townsend (WA) on an early rainy morning and looked at the variety and number and quality of the boats in the numerous harbors, I realized this was heavy duty maritime territory. The sea is big in people’s lives here and northward. Many many people get to their homes only via boat or ferry. Boat people and sailing people have their shit together in ways not necessary for landlubbers. Carelessness can have serious repurcussions once you’re afloat. Krappy craftsmanship can mean sinking. You have to deal with real life: winds, tides, swells, currents, cold, seaworthiness, landing, fishing, sailing, and you need the concomitant skills. The people I ran into were a lot tougher than Bay Area folks. The farther north you go, the more difficult life is; winters longer and wetter; landscape more rugged; physical involvement with the forces of nature more necessary.

In addition to water being all around, and boats being so prominent in everyday life, the big thing up there is W-O-O-D. There’s wood everywhere. Trees in the forests grow like crazy. Not to minimize destructive logging practices, but there are still a fuck of a lot of trees growing in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a woodworker’s dream. There are a LOT of homes built of site-cut and milled wood; this isn’t a novelty as it is elsewhere. The beaches are lined with countless logs. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, a lot of high-quality cedar driftwood got made into homes and boats. I saw 12” wide boards 10 feet long split from cedar. Many of the homes I’m covering were built in those years, which were so vastly different from current times. Lots of builders roamed beaches, using what they found as inspiration and structure for homes and cabins. As I walked along beaches I found myself eyeballing rafter-like poles, ones I could move myself.

Lloyd House

Well, my name is Lloyd and I’ve spent 40 years shooting pictures of buildings and hanging out with builders, and my company is called Shelter, and when I meet the builder of all builders, his name is — what else — Lloyd House. Cosmic, huh?

I was introduced to his work by architect/builder Michael McNamara, who gave me a lot of guidance to builders and buildings. I've photographed 6 or so buildings designed and built by Lloyd, and each time it’s like coming around a corner and finding treasure. When I saw his sauna, I just let out my breath, it was so beautiful, so finely crafted, so witty. The farther I looked (and shot pix), the more I found. There were delights everywhere. A little house he built in a meadow is stunning, I’ve never seen anything like it. The owner said to me on the phone just today: “I am delighted every day of my life to be in this place.” Lloyd is the main inspiration for this book — his work, the influence he’s had on other builders, his ongoing inventiveness.

Bruce Atkey

My friend Godfrey Stephens (see below) told me I had to meet Bruce, that he was the “ultimate guy.” So he was. Boat builder, house builder, carpenter, welder, mechanic, surfer, fisherman, explorer, Bruce has built cabins, houses, lodges, and surfers’ shacks along the west coast of Vancouver Island for the last 30 years. He and his buddy Wayne have also surfed what was until recently little-known surf spots all along the island’s west coast. I shot pictures of Bruce’s creations in the woods and on the beaches, and learned a bunch of things from him about daily life in general. He was born on April 26, me on April 28 (about 15 years apart), so we have a lot in common in our Taurus tendencies, like charging headlong into life.

Godfrey Stephens

Godfrey is a third important person in the unfolding plot of this book-in-progress. I met Godfrey on a beach in Yelapa, south of Puerto Vallarta (reachable only by boat), in 1964 (see page 232 in Home Work). He was a wild young artist from Vancouver Island, painting a huge mural on the wall of the village restaurant and carving driftwood on the beach. Our paths crossed again in 1971, we weren’t in touch for 30 years, and around 3-4 years ago we started emailing each other and catching up on lives lived. It seems that everywhere I went on Vancouver Island, everyone knew him. He’d lived on beaches, built several sailboats completely of driftwood, sailed on the high seas (shipwrecked once in Mexico), once circumnavigated Vancouver Island in a 16’ catamaran, travelled to India and other exotic corners of the earth, all the time painting and drawing and carving. Check his website at http://godfreysart.com

Godfrey kept emailing me that I had to see the builders of his area and he was right. Many of the builders I photographed came directly or indirectly via him. He’s sort of my touchstone on the island. He has a wonderful bunch of friends: builders, boatbuilders, explorers, artists, craftsmen, people full of life and adventure.

“Back To The Land”

Meeting all these people in the Northwest takes me back 30 years (actually 45 years, since I started building for myself in the early ‘60s). For me it was instinctive, and necessary. The only way I was going to get a home I liked was to build it. I started working nights and weekends. And no bank mortgage — what could be better? This led me to gardening (I still have a dog-eared, mud-stained copy of Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening), making things for myself with my own hands. In 1965 I quit my job as an insurance broker in San Francisco, started working as a carpenter, and was thrilled. No more neckties or business lunches to endure or endless paper shuffling. I loved the smell of wood, stepping onto a floor I’d put there myself, hanging out with builders. (Same with farmers and sailors— they have to deal with real things.) Pretty soon there was what was loosely called the “back to the land movement.” It sounds a bit lame now, I guess because the media never believed it was real. But in traveling up north, I’m meeting long-lost brothers and sisters who’ve kept the faith, and the spirit. The idea in the ‘60s was the more you could do for yourself, with your own hands, the better off you’d be — aesthetically, financially, independently. Not having a mortgage (or rent) was a life-liberating experience; early on I calculated how much I was saving in not having to pay interest on a mortgage — a staggering amount. No monthly nut. Up north the onslaught of high real estate prices and attendant over-regulation haven’t dampened that enthusiasm as it has in the Bay Area. It’s wonderful to be around people that are still operating in that realm. And just about everyone I run into in my builder-oriented travels knew and loved our book Shelter (1973). Amazing to get this feedback now. It seems everyone who worked with their hands was inspired by Shelter. I love it!

It’s also caused me to reflect on just what we (builders, gardeners, crafts people) were all doing back then. We never thought we’d be “self-sufficient.” Just try growing (and processing) your own wheat to disabuse yourself of the notion of being self-sufficient. No, the idea was to do as much for yourself as possible — within limitations of having to earn a living, raise a family, etc. Building my own house saved me so much money I had the freedom to figure out what I wanted to be as I grew up. And know what? I think those principles still apply. Can you work with your hands? Then build your own house! It can still be done, the payoff (and difficulties) are more or less the same. You just can’t do it as close to urban areas as before. Or — you can do your own remodeling wherever you live. Whoops, am I preaching here?

No Direction Home

Wasn’t that show great? Bless Martin Scorsese. Who also produced my favorite rock ‘n roll film, The Last Waltz. Jon Carroll wrote a great column in the S.F. Chronicle on Sept. 30 about Dylan and Scorsese, about continuing to work and change and evolve. I went to a Dylan concert in Providence, R.I., on a hitchhiking, soul-searching trip across the US in 1965. I had my camera and the cops let me get right next to the stage. The first half was folk music. After intermission out came Robbie Robertson and Dylan rock-n-rollified. Oh yes! His bedroom window it is made out of bricks. (I came back from the trip and quit my insurance broker job.)

Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Providence, RI, October, 1965

Two Great Gospel Records

When Gospel Was Gospel, by various artists, Shanachie. A great collection, including Sister Rosetta Sharp, The Soul Stirrers, and the Davis Sisters.
Remember Me, by Marion Williams, Shanachie. What a voice! Hey, isn’t black gospel music the best thing to ever come out of Christianity?

Diner for Sale in Northern Washington

I stopped for a latte at this great little diner in Cedro Woolley, Washington. It's a caboose meticulously fitted out with a stainless steel kitchen, hardwood floors, wired and plumbed; it's a charmer. And it's for sale — $49,000. The owner has health problems and needs to sell it. She says it can even be moved, she thinks for about $6-7000 by truck to other parts. Want a ready-made diner? Want to start a new life? Call Jamie Sanchez, 360-854-9179.

The Coffee Caboose, for sale in northern Washington. L-r, customer, Melonie, Jamie

Inside the caboose I was talking to Jamie and her helper Melonie Lanning about the greatness of Italian cooking and they said, "Oh we love Italy, want to see our favorite apron?"

Melonie and her favorite apron

Stay Tuned — More to Come

In the next two weeks I'll post photos of some of the buildings I photographed, and a bunch of other builders. I got really excited today looking through the thumbnails. These guys are unique!

First Blog After 3 Weeks on Road

Moi on split cedar and cable walkway built by Lloyd House on a vertical seaside cliff face, leading to his house from his boat dock

The Ultimate Trip

I've been on the road for 3 weeks now. I've photographed buildings the like of which I've never seen (1500 photos and counting). I've met builders whose work is absolutely unique. I hit great surf. I've seen bears, killer whales, and a bald-headed eagle. (Yesterday a small sea otter jumped up on the pier I was walking across, 10 feet away, glanced at the human, and jumped back into the water.) It's been an odyssey, the most vital and interesting (+ hopefully productive) trip I've ever taken. I've camped on beaches and had barbecued wild oysters. One stormy night I rented a room overlooking the sea, with fireplace and kitchen, and made a great dinner while the storm rolled in from the west. Another stormy night 3 of us slept in a surfers' waterfront shack after a hot sauna, then swim in cold ocean, and the rain pounded on the roof. Plus I've gathered wonderful material for the book (see below).


For some reason I've run into a steady stream of people who are somehow exactly
the right people
at the right place
at the right time.
It's been happening lately. I arrived on a small island by passenger (no autos) ferry 2 days ago, with backpack and tent in case I couldn't find a place to stay. It was raining lightly. I ended up staying in a soulful rambling handbuilt house with great people and a great dinner, sleep, and breakfast and then on my way the next day. It also helps that every single builder I run into up here knows our book Shelter. Everyone was influenced by it. Driving into Victoria the next afternoon I called my friend Godfrey, he said come over right now we're having dinner for friends, so I lucked into a great dinner and spent the night there. I've made a bunch of new friends, great to do this late in life.

The New Book

Working title: Builders of the Pacific Northwest. The book won't get specific about exactly where all these places are; no place needs more tourists. I'll be coming back to Canada in February and then May to finish gathering material for the book. I'm overwhelmed by the material I've gathered in the past 3 weeks. I can't wait to get home and look at all these photos. I'll try posting pics of these builders on the blog when I get the chance.

Skateboarding at Midnight

Victoria has broad streets and there's little traffic at night, even downtown. I went out skating tonight, helmet, safety gear and all, and got in some good rides. I'm working on my turns, trying to get more stable and graceful in the movements. Right turn, weight on right foot; lead turn with left arm, etc. The kids don't even think about it, they just DO it. At my age I have to think it through, get my body to make necessary moves — good for the brain I think. Well anyway, I came down a nice run into Douglas, the main drag, and the light was with me, so made the turn and started skating down Douglas and here's a cop car across the road, and me with no lights etc. and of course he turns on flashing lights, does a U-turn in my direction and — goes speeding off after a car. Whew!